Modernity threat to Majuli

Modernity has marred the traditional façade of the xatras of Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavite culture included in the tentative list of the Unesco World Heritage Sites.

By Gaurav Das
  • Published 12.05.18
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Dakhinpat Xatra. Picture by Gaurav Das

Majuli: Modernity has marred the traditional façade of the xatras of Majuli, the seat of Vaishnavite culture included in the tentative list of the Unesco World Heritage Sites.

The centuries-old walls, living quarters, prayer halls and structures of the xatras, which were made of ekora (a type of reed), bamboo, mud plaster, cow dung, tree trunks for posts and other features, which represented Assamese architecture, are swiftly being replaced by cement, iron rods, hollow pipes, modern bricks, glazed ceramic and vitrified tiles. The charm of the buildings seems lost.

The xatradhikars, along with the bhakats, attribute it to the factors like time and weather that lead to the gradual deterioration of the xatras that were once the pride of Majuli.

"We have no option but to resort to modern construction as the materials used once such as trees have reduced drastically. It is a difficult choice. I agree that there should be no tiles or mosaics used in xatras but heritage conservation methods are difficult to resort to. However, I feel the spiritual essence should be maintained at all costs," said Prabhat Burabhakat, a resident of Natun Kamalabari Xatra.

This issue came to the fore in 2014 when Milan Kumar Chauley, the then superintending archaeologist of the Guwahati circle of Archaeological Survey of India, wrote to the regional director (East) of the ASI in Calcutta.

The letter, a copy of which is with The Telegraph, mentions the xatras at Uttar Kamalabari Xatra, Bengena Ati Xatra, and Natun Kamalabari Xatra as needing immediate attention.

The letter also warned, "People will not go to Majuli to see the modern structures. As Majuli is proposed as a World Heritage site, this type of modern construction will be the reason why it might not make it to the final list."

"We need to preserve the identity of our xatras. But modernity is prevailing. The xatras should reflect the traces of our history," said Nonigopal Dev Goswami, the xatradhikar of Dakhinpat Xatra.

Heritage conservationists also expressed concern over the rapid construction.

"The new buildings now cannot be brought down. What can be done is reshape the buildings into exemplifying xatra structural shapes. It will be an expensive process. This has been done in Santiniketan. It is sad that xatras are losing their heritage sheen," said Jayanta Baruah, the secretary of the Heritage Conservation Society of Assam.

However, all is not lost.

"Intach has started a process for capacity building. Bhakats will now be trained to preserve artefacts. It is a step-by-step process. The main issue for the xatras is the preservation of their unique identity," said Debaprasad Misra, the deputy commissioner of Majuli.

The state government now wants to focus on the island's natural biodiversity, its topography and cultural traits for the Unesco World Heritage Site tag.